The Key Takeaways From ‘Atlantic Magazine’s’ Year-Long Exposé on Fraternities

by 5 years ago


Caitlin Flanagan, of Atlantic Magazine, spent the past year researching fraternity life and Greek culture for a feature, “The Dark Power of Fraternities,” which was released today.

The piece is… exhaustive. Over 15,000 words. Say what you want about fraternity life, Flanagan does her research, uncovering troubling aspects about the relationships between fraternities and universities, fraternities and their national chapters and fraternities and their individual members.

I’ve tried to synthesize it here, but if you want the full story, it’s really best to read her entire piece.

She starts things off with a bang.

One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air.

The incident, while humorous on the surface, is also how Flanagan structures the narrative of her piece. A man watching the fireworks, Louis Helmburg III, fell off the deck while filming the show and sued Alpha Tau Omega. Flanagan thus went back through numerous lawsuits against fraternities over the past several decades to uncover just exactly how the system works.

She begins with a history of fraternities, including the fact that the phrase “I did get one of the nicest pieces of ass some day or two ago” was used as earlier as 1857 by a Sigma Phi member. 1857! But enough about that. If frats are so stupid—ass-fireworks!—why don’t we just ban them?

In many substantive ways, fraternities are now mightier than the colleges and universities that host them.

How so?

Today, one in eight American students at four-year colleges lives in a Greek house, and a conservative estimate of the collective value of these houses across the country is $3 billion. Greek housing constitutes a troubling fact for college administrators (the majority of fraternity-related deaths occur in and around fraternity houses, over which the schools have limited and widely varying levels of operational oversight) and also a great boon to them (saving them untold millions of dollars in the construction and maintenance of campus-owned and -controlled dormitories).

Also, they provide universities with money, and are indeed a major attraction for high school students.

Moreover, fraternities tie alumni to their colleges in a powerful and lucrative way. At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters. Furthermore, fraternities provide colleges with unlimited social programming of a kind that is highly attractive to legions of potential students, most of whom are not applying to ivy-covered rejection factories, but rather to vast public institutions and obscure private colleges that are desperate for students. When Mom is trying—against all better judgment—to persuade lackluster Joe Jr. to go to college, she gets a huge assist when she drives him over to State and he gets an eyeful of frat row.

But? Well, for starters, butts.  Frats cause a lot of butt injuries.

Surely [Frats] have cornered the market in injuries to the buttocks. The number of lawsuits that involve paddling gone wrong, or branding that necessitated skin grafts, or a particular variety of sexual torture reserved for hazing and best not described in the gentle pages of this magazine, is astounding. To say nothing of the University of Tennessee frat boy who got dropped off, insensate, at the university hospital’s emergency room and was originally assumed to be the victim of a sexual assault, and only later turned out to have damaged his rectum by allegedly pumping wine into it through an enema hose, as had his pals.

That’s just the humorous stories though. Flanagan goes on to detail an astounding problem, that fraternity houses have an insanely high number of deaths due to falls.

During the 2012–13 school year on the Palouse—where students from the two campuses often share apartments and attend parties at each other’s schools—the falls continued. In September, a student suffered serious injuries after falling off the roof of the Alpha Tau Omega house at the University of Idaho, and two days later a Washington State student fell three stories from a window at Phi Kappa Tau… But during the period of time under consideration, serious falls from fraternity houses on the two Palouse campuses far outnumbered those from other types of student residences, including privately owned apartments occupied by students.

If you don’t think fraternities are inherently dangerous, see what insurance companies had to say about them.

The insurance industry ranked American fraternities as the sixth-worst insurance risk in the country—just ahead of toxic-waste-removal companies. “You guys are nuts,” an insurance representative told a fraternity CEO in 1989, just before canceling the organization’s coverage; “you can’t operate like this much longer.”

Here’s where Flanagan gets to the crux of her article, that fraternities have now, because of this inherent risk, concocted ways around liability: namely, B.S. alcohol policies, which exist but are never enforced. And only serve to fuck over members.

[Fraternal Information and Programming Group] regularly produces a risk-management manual—the current version is 50 pages—that lays out a wide range of (optional) best practices. If the manual were Anna Karenina, alcohol policy would be its farming reform: the buzz-killing subplot that quickly reveals itself to be an authorial obsession. For good reason: the majority of all fraternity insurance claims involve booze—I have read hundreds of fraternity incident reports, not one of which describes an event where massive amounts of alcohol weren’t part of the problem—and the need to manage or transfer risk presented by alcohol is perhaps the most important factor in protecting the system’s longevity. Any plaintiff’s attorney worth his salt knows how to use relevant social-host and dramshop laws against a fraternity; to avoid this kind of liability, the fraternity needs to establish that the young men being charged were not acting within the scope of their status as fraternity members. Once they violated their frat’s alcohol policy, they parted company with the frat. It’s a neat piece of logic: the very fact that a young man finds himself in need of insurance coverage is often grounds for denying it to him.

Regarding this, here’s what Douglas Fierberg, one of the leading plaintiff lawyers, had to say to Flanagan about fraternities.

“Until proven otherwise,” Fierberg told me in April of fraternities, “they all are very risky organizations for young people to be involved in.” He maintains that fraternities “are part of an industry that has tremendous risk and a tremendous history of rape, serious injury, and death, and the vast majority share common risk-management policies that are fundamentally flawed. Most of them are awash in alcohol. And most if not all of them are bereft of any meaningful adult supervision.” As for the risk-management policies themselves: “They are primarily designed to take the nationals’ fingerprints off the injury and deaths, and I don’t believe that they offer any meaningful provisions.” The fraternity system, he argues, is “the largest industry in this country directly involved in the provision of alcohol to underage people.” The crisis-management plans reveal that in “the foreseeable future” there may be “the death or serious injury” of a healthy young person at a fraternity function.

And the counterpoint, from Peter Smithhisler, CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference:

He believes that the fraternity experience at its best constitutes an appeal to a young man’s better angels: through service, leadership training, and accountability for mistakes, a brother can learn the valuable lessons he will need to become “a better dad, a better teacher, a better engineer, a better pilot, a better ‘insert career here.’” Spend some time talking with Pete Smithhisler, and you can go from refusing to allow your son to join a fraternity to demanding he do so.

It’s a debate that’s not resolved by Flanagan. Seriously, go read her whole thing.

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